Fully one third of the Habs’ season is in the books already — time flies when you’re having fun, doesn’t it? And with the Habs sitting atop the standings at 11-4-1, Habs fans are certainly having fun right now. (That’s second to Boston in point percentage actually, but still!) And perhaps more impressively, they sit 4th in the league in 5-on-5 goal ratio with 1.40 — that means that they score 58% of 5-on-5 goals in their games, and that was never a particular strength of the club. This looks like a good time to look at the team’s puck possession metrics, to see how the team is doing at even-strength, and if that record is smoke and mirrors or if there’s sustainability to it.
The metric I present in the following chart is 5-on-5 Corsi with the score Close. This means that it’s the ratio of shot attempts for versus against when a player is on the ice, including goals, shots, misses, and blocks. I’ve used Corsi instead of Fenwick (which omits blocks) to get a bigger data set; this gives the regulars samples ranging mostly between 140 and 250 shots for the forwards and 130 to 300 for the defensemen. Only 5-on-5 hockey is considered (no special teams, no 4-on-4, and no empty-net situations). And only “close score” situations are considered to measure the team’s performance without bias from score effects; “close score” is defined as the score being tied, or being within one in the first or second period.
|Player||Corsi Close %|
That’s actually one impressive suite of numbers. The team’s first line, that centered by Plekanec, has been exceedingly effective, playing against the toughest opposition and gaining the edge in possession overall. Plekanec’s number is extremely impressive there — we’re now seeing the sort of thing he can do with quality two-way wingers. The surprise here is Rene Bourque. Someone appears to have kidnapped the 2011-2012 Bourque and replaced him with his 2008-2009 Flames version. That Bourque was a very capable two-way winger, and he has been an able addition to the team’s top line. Could his hernia surgery be the source of this turnaround? In any case, it’s fair to say he’s done considerably better than I expected him to. The rejuvenated Bourque has neatly filled that hole in the top-6.
Desharnais and Cole are getting a great deal of flak in many parts for their lack of scoring. In a way, they are the victim of their success from last season; with such high shooting percentage, they were always very unlikely to replicate their scoring numbers. They have, however, regressed “past the mean” and are now the two luckiest Habs on record. Cole’s PDO is a wretched 974, which is bad enough but hardly compares to Desharnais’s stunning (and unsustainable) 943. Desharnais’s on-ice shooting percentage is barely over half of what it was last year. Their luck is very likely to turn and with that, their scoring number. Their frequent linemate Pacioretty’s run of bad luck was different — he couldn’t buy a goal despite being the usual shot machine he is. He got that monkey off that back recently and it’s not surprising to see him with the highest possession number among all regular Habs — for a winger, Pacioretty has always been elite at driving the play forward.
The “kid line” has been dynamite, albeit Therrien has carefully, and wisely, selected their minutes, feeding them many offensive zone starts and weaker competition. They are getting soft minutes, but the “Gallys” are handily defeating said soft minutes. The addition of Eller to that line was welcome, as the Dane is a strong possession player and, at this point in his career, a much better two-way center than the rookie Galchenyuk, and allows Therrien flexibility to give them tougher assignments.
The fourth line may look bad on this chart but don’t let that fool you. This is not the typical four-minute fourth line. Therrien uses this unit as a heavily devensive, tough-competition unit. The fourth line is being buried with defensive faceoffs and their competition metrics are comparable to the Plekanec’s line, in order to provide the other units with better offensive opportunities. They cannot be expected to hold water in these situations. Armstrong’s performance, especially, is notable: he is almost the black despite a Malhotra-esque 29.5% offensive zone start. This is a role not unlike that which he played under Therrien as a Penguin.
I identified Markov as key to the Habs’ fortunes, and the Russian has not disappointed. He’s been excellent on the power play, but he’s also anchored a very capable first pairing with Emelin. Emelin may be the most capable regular partner Markov’s ever had, which certainly helps explain why their possession numbers are in the black.
Josh Gorges and Rafael Diaz have served as a defensively-oriented second-pairing type unit at even-strength. They’ve done that very well, and Diaz indeed seems to have progressed his game relative to last year. Their slightly weaker possession numbers are no doubt due to this usage.
Which leaves the third pairing, and this is an interesting case. Bouillon has exceeded my expectations; he’s a perfectly serviceable third-pairing defenseman at even-strength, though I would avoid using him on special teams quite as much as he does (if Emelin is not an option, then perhaps the use of a forward at the point of the second unit should be considered?) The problem is with Subban playing third-pairing minutes. It should be no surprise that he should destroy them: even with Markov’s return, Subban is the team’s best 5-on-5 defenseman, and one of the best 5-on-5 defensemen in the league period. A great deal of the Habs’ roster’s potential strength is predicated on its blueline and its ability to roll out two first-pairing quality defensemen units because of Subban and Markov. By using his best defenseman (if not his best skater!) a mere 19:41 a game, less than he had as a two-game rookie, Therrien is basically conceding this advantadge. It speaks highly of the team’s depth and ability that they’ve been able to get such strong results at even-strength despite using only about 3/4ths of their #1 defenseman, but in the long term, the team’s interests would be better served in using this exceptional player more often. It’s not interesting to know he can beat third-pairing minutes with Bouillon, he could do that with Alexandre Picard as a second-year pro. The problem with that, of course, is that both existing pairings are working well and the coach is likely disinclined to break one up. Still, despite Diaz’s progress as a player, I am certain that Gorges-Subban would be a superior pairing to Gorges-Diaz. If there is one major criticism to be made of the Habs’ coach, this would be it.
All in all, the team’s possession metrics are quite strong. They’ve been the beneficiaries of some luck and some unreal goaltending by Price, but they’ve also outplayed clubs and their winning record is certainly deserved. While the Habs are probably not quite a 11-4-1 team going forward, they do seem to be one of the better clubs in the conference (though aided by a favorable early schedule). And there’s room for growth, whether it be from better usage of Subban or by simple development of the rookies. They might not be able to hold on to that first spot in the conference or a surprisingly tough Northeast division, but they are certainly in good position to make the playoffs; it’s difficult to look at these numbers and not see the Canadiens as being comfortably in the top half of the conference, and their strong start gives them a great deal of breathing room in the standings.